By Adam Perlmutter
Before the twins arrived, I wondered when they would start learning music and what their first instruments would be. Those answers came within a year, when my wife and I got my son and daughter each an affordable but playable Diamond Head soprano ukulele, which they took to with single-minded intensity.
The twins are now four, and their ukuleles are mainstays in a growing collection of little instruments. They often break out their ukes and burst into spontaneous duos, quoting equally from the Sesame Street songbook and the works of Steve Reich. Not long ago, I accompanied them to a play date at the home of a friend, whose battery of instruments includes a real trap kit, a harmonium, and a nifty Gretsch concert koa. I left feeling shabby and resolved to upgrade their instruments.
They say you are your child’s first teacher, but often I learn from my kids. To help research their next ukes, I took them and their younger brother—already an enthusiastic strummer at eight months—to McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica. What they taught me could be helpful to any parents looking for their children’s next ukulele.
Setup for Success
My older son tried one uke and said, “These tuner buttons are hard to turn.”
When shopping for your kids’ next ukes, look for the same quality components and good fit and finish you would if you were buying a new instrument for yourself. A uke’s machine heads should be easy to turn, and the instrument had better hold its pitch well. Give the knobs a twist, and subject the guitar to some vigorous strumming, to make sure it not only gets in tune easily, but that it stays there.
Sharp fret ends and high action are even harder on little mitts than adult hands, so beware of these common shortcomings of craftsmanship. Test every string at every fret, to make sure all the notes ring clearly and that the intonation is accurate. A uke with a comfortable setup and perfect intonation is the instrument a kid needs for learning.
Laminated Can Be a Solid Idea
“Look at the beautiful wood on this one,” said my daughter, checking out a koa Collings which, at $2,000, is clearly not in the running.
Upgrading to an all-solid-wood instrument from one made of laminated woods can make a marked improvement in sound, but it’s going to cost you. What’s more, solid-wood instruments are less durable. Here’s firsthand evidence: Our twins’ laminated Diamond Heads have been dropped on hardwood floors and concrete, but they remain structurally intact; their friend’s solid Gretsch bears unfortunate cracks.
If your kid is old enough to take good care of an instrument, swapping up to an all-solid model is good idea. If not, go for laminated or plastic; you don’t want to have to try to enforce unrealistic rules about an instrument’s care that could take the fun out of your child’s first experiences at making music.
“It’s really cool that you can see through this uke,” my older son, eyeing a Kala Makala Waterman with a green plastic body, said. His sister, referring to a Mainland Red Cedar Tenor, enthused, “I love this one because the buttons are like cherries and it has a really beautiful orange color.” Their little brother, secured in his Ergo carrier, reached for a vibrant Kala Makala Dolphin.
Just as you might be drawn to a uke with the most beautifully figured koa wood or abalone bling, kids prefer ukes that look cool to those they see as plain. So be sure to take the time to find out what catches your little musician’s eye.
To Plug In or Not
“Daddy, it’s electric!” my older son shouted, to the amusement of the McCabe’s staff. He’d spotted the output jack on an Ohana acoustic-electric cutaway.
Having a uke with onboard electronics is a definite plus if your kid is older and plays in a band or talent shows, or enjoys recording. But if your child just plays around the house or as part of a large uke ensemble, a pickup might not be worth the price.
On the other hand, a pickup system on a uke can be great fun, even if it’s not absolutely necessary. When I reviewed an Ortega Lizard recently, I plugged it into my older son’s Danelectro Honeytone, and he had fun manipulating the amp’s sound while I played. It was the type of bonding moment that every music-loving parent wants.